A Fungus Among Us

Allison Gustavson
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)
10 min readSep 4, 2020

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“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is now.” — Chinese proverb

Have you noticed, lately, that you get such a boost — on a deeply felt, cellular level — when coming across even the most seemingly minor gesture of kindness and humanity? When a guy lets you pass into his lane with a wave and a smile, or when the kid at Home Depot laughs at your lame mom joke?

Everything has been feeling so, well, heightened. Funny things are funnier. Sad things are sadder. Pretty things are prettier and, indeed, ugly things are uglier.

I started this story feeling steeped in the ugliness, my attention pulled towards the lowest forms of human expression most recently on full display for me and my family as we held Biden/Harris signs at a downtown intersection last weekend.

There was something deliciously self-righteous about the process of describing that ugliness in painterly detail, and I just felt like going for it.

It was cathartic, like the time — as an exhausted new mother whose baby had just spilled an entire box of Cheerios across the kitchen floor — I was so furious with the impenetrable childproof lock under the sink that I kicked straight through the custom-made wooden cabinet.

That momentary triumph over the magnetic lock quickly gave way to larger questions of loneliness and exhaustion; so too, here, did the contemplation of ugliness yield unexpected insight.

The kids were understandably worried that we might be the only ones demonstrating out there on that busy corner. Mark and I sent them off for ice cream while we took a few minutes to get established, get a sense of things, and hopefully wait for at least a few others to join us.

I’d posted about this “standout” in a group of 900+ active, local-dwelling, racial justice-oriented folks on Facebook, emailed about forty friends, and had the “blurb” blasted to a list of more than 10,000 people curated by a Democratic powerhouse activist here in Evergreen.

I didn’t think we’d need a crossing guard, per se, but felt certain at least a few people would show up.

Nobody came. When the kids got back from what must have been the longest and most procrastinating ice cream experience in history, it was still just Mark and me, standing on the corner, wrangling four posters and a banner between the two of us as the mountain winds continued to blow and shift.

I was sure that once they got close enough to notice that we were still alone, the ice cream gang was going to plead with us to call it off, even though it had been my daughter’s idea in the first place.

To my absolute delight and enduring pride, the kids grabbed their posters without any intervention on my part — parenting is nothing if not a parade of unexpected moments to which we mostly, at least, attempt to thoughtfully and dexterously respond — and joined right in, waving back at the honkers and shaking their signs at every instance of positive feedback.

All told, we stood there for a little more than an hour. Nothing earth-shattering. But by the end of that hour, and the day itself, I felt mostly drained. Drained by two streams of disappointment that had been quietly circulating through my body from the moment we got there, and probably reinforced each other: first, of course, the fact that nobody showed up; and second and even more potently, the predictable presence of vocal Trump supporters whose comportment and general demeanor, as they drove by, can only be described as fungal.

I know: “fungal” is an odd choice of words. It just surfaced as the most accurate reflection of the disgust these people’s reactions elicited in me.

They drove by, rolled down their windows, sometimes raised a fist, and, almost always, — as though they were off-gassing a volatile chemical compound — yelled a monosyllabic and triumphant “Trump!” or “No!”, their bursts often accompanied by a creepy, joyless laugh.

They offered no rebuke to the substantive points made on our issue-based signs about gun violence, the environment, the economy, and the pandemic, even when stopped at the light with plenty of time to engage. They just belched. Though I’d seen it a million times before, their manner of being in the world was disheartening.

Let me be clear: this is not a portrait of all who do not share my political beliefs. My activist history and, in fact, my entire worldview, has been predicated on a fundamental conviction that — despite our currently dysfunctional political climate — there exists an opportunity for the US to evolve, politically and culturally, out of this whiplash-inducing win/lose framework that pits left and right in an endless boxing match for supremacy.

I am progressive by nature, but I have enormous respect for — and have learned so much from, both in my family and throughout my campaign for state rep — many people who hold more conservative values, support politicians that share those values, and participate in healthy, civil discourse. But this moment, as we know, does not reflect two value systems pitted against each other; this is a time of values versus valuelessness, ideas versus idealessness, and yes, even laws versus lawlessness (vote twice?!).

So no, I’m not talking about those who subscribe to a “principled conservatism” with whom I might passionately but substantively engage. My anger is directed toward those who would give the middle finger to a sixth-grader proudly and bravely exercising his First Amendment right on a street corner in Evergreen, CO.

This was a population comprised, on the one hand, of those who have been brainwashed into supporting a system that seeks only to perpetuate its own domination by exploiting their worst fears and instincts, and on the other, those who, whatever they tell themselves, are clinging desperately to that system as the source of the hollow, material power that’s the only one they can recognize as achievable or valuable.

In the abstract, I can still find a place of empathy for that first bunch, although accessing that well of generosity has admittedly become increasingly challenging. But I know some people in the second set too well, which makes it incredibly difficult for me to consider them objectively.

Their lives reflect an experience not of true service or philosophical conviction, but of a privilege so deeply embedded in their identity that, like toddlers, they feel inseparable from that which is “mine” (my house, my land, my boat, my trip to Paris, my country) and, equally like toddlers, mistake their wealth for worth (“I have six Hot Wheels cars and you only have two”) and the world for their playroom.

I have been grappling mightily with feelings of rage towards those in that second set.

Their unwavering support for this Administration has nothing to do with an earnest if maliciously misguided salvation proffered by a false, blundering, incoherent, morally and psychologically vacant prophet, and everything to do with a reptilian instinct for power at all costs, costs we are concretely and measurably handing over to the unwitting children entrusted to our care.

But that word “fungal” got me thinking.

Fungi release enzymes necessary to break down organic material. They thus provide nutrients essential for a multitude of organisms, enable new growth, and balance ecosystems. If fungi did not do their job, in other words, elements required for the survival of habitats would be trapped in organic matter, unavailable, and so block and preclude the life cycle.

In my lowest-energy moments, I feel depleted beyond recognition by the landscape of despair that this country has become, by the suffering that has been inflicted upon the bodies and souls of untold millions at the hands of unimaginably brutal systems and the people that unquestioningly uphold them.

I am drained to the point of tears by the crude rudeness of the naysayers as they drive by my sweet family standing at the busy intersection with its earnest, hopeful posters.

But when I refuel, get some rest, read brilliant books, and listen to brilliant people, I find access to a nascent evolutionary narrative.

In this other story, there truly is a forest floor littered with the dead wood of self-perpetuating systems that, like the proverbial water for fish, have been heretofore largely invisible to most of us. Although they are ubiquitous and impact every aspect of our lives, we’ve mostly caught only fleeting glimpses of their existence when there’s been a big enough disruption.

How often have we driven down a highway almost anywhere in America, say, seen the inevitable and aesthetically noxious Michael’s/Best Buy/TJMaxx/Barnes and Noble/OfficeMax/Whole Foods/Old Navy/Panera/Starbucks/Chipotle complex and thought to ourselves, “Of all the possibilities inherent in this vast, unfathomable, and ever-expanding universe, this shitty, soul-sucking collage is all we’ve managed to come up with?” Probably not often enough.

But when an event rises to the surface with enough intensity — as was the case with the murder of George Floyd — its magnitude signals a question that should have been obvious all along. How did this come to be, and how am I directly participating in its perpetuation?

Perhaps there is something truly fungal about the vitriolic spew emanating from this appalling segment of society that was so hideously on display for my family last weekend. Perhaps their venom is an enzyme.

Certainly these people, activated and emboldened by their leader, have shaken us awake, galvanized us, forced us to reckon not only with the shadow-side of our country’s history but also the shadows within ourselves. That energy we feel — the energy provoked by “moral injury,” as my psychiatrist friend often refers to it — has been there all along, unseen, trapped. Its potential is magnificent, but only if it’s tapped.

And it’s undeniably being released. Attention and activism on behalf of a healed society and planet is no longer a pursuit largely sequestered in a small, courageous subset of society; it’s increasingly an aspect of everyday life, of parenting, of the routine of living for those of us most allergic to the particular brand of corrupt, self-dealing, country-killing poison that has found its way into the highest halls of power.

However we might disagree about how it is deployed, those of us who truly and fundamentally believe in the premise of this country have been compelled to rise from some degree of dormancy to preserve our democracy.

We are starting to at least recognize, if not yet withdraw ourselves from, the conditioning of an entertainment-news-industrial complex that thrives when we mistake numb, ever-stimulated distraction for real aliveness. We’re paying attention to what is happening around us, how we are being manipulated, and how that makes us feel.

This morning, driving back from Denver, I rounded the corner and saw the mountains in all of their absurd majesty, high-definition-clear after weeks of wildfire smoke and smog. My music was playing loudly, the random shuffle of “all songs” bringing an unexpected lineup of genres that would kill a house party but somehow makes a drive thoroughly intriguing.

It’s a moment I’ve had thousands of times, because I’ve been fortunate to spend my life in beautiful places, but against the backdrop of the uncertainty and relentless stress and anxiety brought on by those who seek to destroy and dismantle our society and planet, I felt an almost giddy joy just being on the highway on my way home.

It’s the same giddy joy that I felt out there on that hot street corner last weekend every time a driver honked and waved, gave us a thumbs up, or stopped to thank us for what we were doing. There were a lot of those encounters. A lot more, in fact, than with the assholes.

When I’m tired, I tend to focus on the assholes. When I started this piece, I just wanted to self-righteously comment on the specific contours of their contorted faces. But that’s only because I was too exhausted, at that moment, to recognize that the ugliness they were injecting into the biosphere had, by Newtonian law, an equal and opposite reaction: the revelation of beauty and a shift in my sensitivity to its presence, wherever it is to be found.

There are approximately 120,000 different kinds of fungus currently identified by the scientific community. I suspect that there are at least as many different kinds of assholes in America, bred in soil ranging from the systemically nutrient-and-mineral-starved to the overexposed and over-watered. Some are the homicidal maniacs who dominate our headlines and nightmares, and some are the garden-variety douchebags who think it’s fine to yell “hate monger!” at a group of young children standing for their own future.

We’ve devoted too much time, as I did the other day and pretty much do every day, with our attention on this particular family of humans. It’s a natural law that what we pay attention to grows; the environment is moist enough for this fungus to grow on its own, under the hot, mask-less breath of our current president.

It needs no added moisture from us. Rather, let’s compost this crap and let it fertilize the trees that we didn’t think to plant twenty years ago, when this particular fungus was still germinating below the surface and its red caps hadn’t yet broken through.

This is not just a metaphor: it’s a personal practice of actively redirecting our attention, and thus our bodies, towards the good. When I spent a summer mountain biking, I learned to always focus on the spot a few feet ahead, between the big rocks blocking the narrow dirt path; looking at the rocks, I learned, made you hit them. Looking at the unimpeded path through them, though, ensured uninterrupted exhilaration.

So it is with these people in our midst. I certainly noticed the lady without a mask behind me at the gas station counter yesterday, of course, but I actively chose to focus on, chat with, thank, and tip the lady working behind it. Rather than leaving with a heavy bag of anger and disgust, I left with a light feeling of solidarity and connection.

The enzymes have been released; if we want to see healthy trees in twenty years, we must harness that energy, work around the rocks, and get those seeds into today’s fertile ground.

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Allison Gustavson
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

> teacher > mom > writer > activist organizer > candidate for state rep in coastal Massachusetts > TBD in Colorado foothills >